The Victorians were very interested in Norse mythology. It was a concern created in part by philology, which had, along with geology, an exceptional status at the time as an area of study that could throw light on mankind’s past. While fossils in rocks told stories about the distant history of life on Earth, philology could tell us about the history of mankind before the invention of writing. If languages could be shown to be related, then their speakers had obviously once had some sort of connection as well. It’s consequently not surprising that J.R.R. Tolkien, who used ancient Norse mythology to such great effect in his fiction, was also in his day the most highly esteemed Norse philologist in the English-speaking world.
A.S. Byatt says she was asked to tell the story of one of her favorite myths for a series being published by Canongate. She chose the Norse story of Ragnarok, or “the twilight of the gods,” although she adds that experts tell us this is probably a mistranslation, and what was really meant was the final battle in which the gods would be defeated, and darkness and cold reign over the Earth.
Byatt tells the story with considerable flair, mixing ancient elements with her own memories of being a small girl (“the thin child”) evacuated from wartime Sheffield in the UK to the countryside. There she read an old German retelling of the stories, and felt close to everything they narrated
through her contact with the local rural landscape.
Her great set pieces are the descriptions of the tree at the center of the world, Yggdrasil, and its maritime equivalent, a monstrous bull-kelp called Randrasill. Later, in what constitutes the best part of the book, she retells the story of the death of Baldur, killed by his blind brother Hodur using a spear of mistletoe (the only wood that could harm him), his arm guided by the half-god Loki.
Ragnarok: The End of the Gods
By A.S. Byatt
The Victorians’ interest in all this is displayed by Matthew Arnold’s poem Balder Dead (variations of spelling are normal in myths, as Byatt herself comments), and William Morris’ references to him in his many renderings of Icelandic material in both verse and prose. When Wagner used part of the story for his Ring cycle of operas, he was occupying an area that was already prominent in the cultural atmosphere of his times.
Today, Baldur’s Gate is a computer game, and it’s impossible not to feel that Byatt is in a sense reclaiming the story for literature, while hoping at the same time to attract the young to a written version of stories they’ll already be familiar with from their online games.
Byatt isn’t the first to notice that the Norse gods were not over-endowed with intelligence, brutally killing on all sides and given to a rough-and-ready sense of humor. It’s probable the originators of these stories saw Nature itself as being like that, and the young version of A.S. Byatt in Ragnarok certainly sees things that way, instinctively taking to these old legends as reflecting the natural northern English world around her. Early on, she tells us, she rejected the “gentle Jesus” form of Christianity she witnessed in the local churches, quickly perceiving it as being a myth just like all the others, merely a less attractive one.
Despite the author’s insistence that her story isn’t an allegory and doesn’t have a moral, ecological doom dominates the last few pages. “Almost all the scientists I know,” she writes, “think